Therapeutic Design: Living by Ethics to Build Better Buildings

The way we think about designing our cities and about the purpose of architecture is changing rapidly. In the Anthropocene era, where human activity is now determining the health of our planet, we face new challenges to solve every day. 

Compared to the past, building our environments in this age is more complex in some respects and simpler in others. Here we refer to simplicity in ethics as simplicity for conscience, drawing on the philosophical teachings of the Iranian religion Zoroastrianism with its threefold path to follow ‘good thoughts, good words, and good deeds as an example for generating simplicity in conscience.  

We can build magnificent buildings but if they’re built upon the feelings of “anger and hatred, grievances and complaints, contempt and arrogance, haste, prejudice, and pessimism” then we will build structures that suffocate our society, our planet, and our conscience. 

Building is more complex today because our behaviors have a direct effect on the global ecosystem, with the decisions of large companies having a substantial impact on the survival of our species. Many of these companies are undeniably focused on profit maximization without regard for the well-being of social or environmental ecosystems.

In contrast, during the Holocene, our behaviors weren’t capable of worldwide ecosystem changes. Now, climate change and globalization have marked a new era for our civilization, the Anthropocene.

Scientists, specifically ecologists, have now recognized that the social and ecological domains of study are not separate but unified. We are therefore challenged with this new perspective that to maintain the health of our planet we also need to maintain the health among the many cultural groups within our societies.

The idea that unethical behaviors within our political system, or among our population, can cause a degradation in the health of our social relationships, and then cause degradation in our natural environment has been faced with much skepticism within the scientific community, sometimes bordering on denial.

Many claim that abuse, coercion, and manipulation are indelible parts of humanity, and are separate from the ecological destruction of our planet. However, I disagree with this.

As architects and planners, we have a responsibility not only to the clients who pay us but also to the broader community. We need to make sure that our built structures consider not only the materials but also include ethics in their design through democratic processes that consider all legitimate stakeholders.

For example, what if a person was assaulted sexually and had no place to go at night? What if the community didn’t respond? How could architecture and city planning help them find a safe space to sleep for the night?

Architecture is not neutral. It shapes our visual and sound environments and determines how our senses interact with this environment.

The Dali Lama might argue that to answer these questions we must cultivate a sense of compassion for ourselves, others, and all living beings. This will help us to navigate the anger, pessimism, and contempt that naturally arise from the stressors of day-to-day, and increasingly relevant, from the impact of wars and ecological disasters.

Architecture is not neutral. It shapes our visual and sound environments and determines how our senses interact with this environment. A framework of ideas, values, and ethics can direct us to re-evaluate our ethical understanding and design environments to facilitate certain ethical behaviors that heal human minds. And through that, heal our environment.

The built environment is a shared experience with more stakeholders than just the developers and parties purchasing or renting out the structure. Architecture must be thought of as a public good, especially when we consider that what was before the steel and buildings, was earth. The earth was a home for many different species of animals and plants, which everyone could enjoy.

When architecture is thought of as a public good it means that as architects and urban planners, we have a responsibility to not only our clients, but to a broader community of people, plants, and animals.

Instead of seeing those who are not our clients as illegitimate stakeholders with a sense of anger or pessimism, we can advocate for a more open and transparent design process to encourage more diverse use of the space among different thinkers and cultures. This way, we can prevent our creations from suffocating social relationships, which arguably prevents the realization of a sustainable future.

Ethics within architecture must not simply be a recitation of words, same as music is not just the playing of notes. It is the playing of notes with feeling and elegance. When designing a public space, or a building, if we live an ethical life and practice compassion for all living beings, this can emerge in the design and bring greater clarity and a sense of resolution.

We can start the process of ethical living and design by donating to charity, understanding abuse and not perpetuating it, volunteering within our community, and supporting more sustainable supply chains through buying local organic food, and using recycled products. These are ethics in action and they are needed more and more for a sustainable built environment that will survive the Anthropocene.

Practicing ethics requires that we understand what harms people. This could be different, depending on different cultures. However, some broad rules apply when it comes to violence and coercive behavior. We need not accept them as the norm, not empower them with our hate and anger, because this disempowers those who are non-violent. If we don’t live by our ethics and don’t develop compassion for ourselves, then we will continue to fall into the cycles of pessimism and anger which create environments that don’t heal the mind but harm it.

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Abrisham is in his final year of a bachelor of environmental science at Southern Cross University in Lismore. He is a student academic experience representative and has been an advocate for the built environment and its positive effects on helping improve the health and well-being of students, staff, and broader communities. His passion of study is the built environment and how society and natural ecology interact for human, plant, and animal health and well-being, using current research from the scientific fields of psychology and neuroscience. You can read more about him and his writing on his website.